Robert Englund’s Freddy Saga
Freddy is the physical incarnation of some of our deepest and most frightening fears.
By Marc Shapiro and Michael Gingold
Robert Englund has been looking into the scar-tissued, pockmarked, mangled face of Freddy Krueger since 1984. But he never seems to be at a loss for something new to say about his character.
“I think what audiences like about Freddy is a combination of things,” says Englund, while being made up into everybody’s favorite Dream Killer on the set of A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. “They like his personality, his cruelty, his wisecracking. There’s a lot about Freddy Krueger to like.”
The actor pauses a moment, obviously deep in thought. “But you know what the main reason is that Freddy continues to be so popular? It’s because he represents something in society we’ve lost. Freddy is the creepy ghost story told around a campfire by a camp counselor. We’ve become so sophisticated and jaded that we’ve lost the idea of telling ghost stories and just possibly having them come true. For many people, Freddy Krueger represents an element of fantasy and fear that gives us a thrill.”
Englund came by the character of Freddy Krueger after a long and distinguished career in film, television and theater. Born and raised in Southern California, a young Robert Englund became interested in acting at age 12. As a member of California State University’s children’s theater program, he appeared in productions of Peter Pan, Hansel and Gretel and Pinocchio.
Following high school, Englund continued his acting education at UCLA and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. It was then that he received what he considers his first big break—a part in the regional production of Godspell. Englund followed that with more theater work and a string of film roles that included Buster and Billie, Stay Hungry, The Last of the Cowboys and Big Wednesday. He also appeared in the television films Hobson’s Choice, I Want to Live and the miniseries V.
“I was working, but I was also finding myself getting typecast as the sidekick and the buddy,” remembers Englund. “So when I heard they were casting around for somebody to play Freddy Krueger, I went for an audition hoping I would get the role and break the typecasting that was following me around.”
Englund remembers that director Wes Craven first considered larger-sized actors to play Freddy. But he convinced Craven he was the man for the role. “They originally wanted a Glenn Strange type for the part, but when the casting director saw how physical and ready to go down to the wire I was, she brought me to the attention of Wes and I got the part.”
After the surprise success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Englund quickly discovered what celebrity was all about. “Since V, I had been doing the science fiction conventions where these motherly types would come around because of the attachment to the character of Willie,” he relates. “But after Nightmare came out, I started to notice a lot more heavy metal kids coming around. Hell! They were even dressed like me. I thought at that point something about this character must have struck a nerve.”
The good time Englund was having with Freddy Krueger continued when he was called back to reprise the role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.
“Playing Freddy is a pleasure for me,” Englund says, “I get to scream, run around and torture nubile teenage girls. Hey, who could ask for more than that?”
On Nightmare 2, Englund found himself with a better handle on the nature of the Freddy Krueger character. “Krueger’s your classic boogeyman and a Freudian kind of nightmare,” he notes. “He’s the physical incarnation of some of our deepest and most frightening fears. Freddy’s more than just a one-dimensional splatter film killer.”
Nightmare 2 was a major hit and the talk was that A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors would be tailored even further in the direction of mainstream audiences. That possibility was of no concern to Englund.
“Sure we’re taking the series in a different direction. But there’s still plenty in these movies for the hardcore FANGORIA people who discovered these films in the first place,” he says.
Englund indicates that he’s essentially on “automatic pilot” when it comes to playing Freddy. “It has gotten to the point where I instinctively know where Freddy should be cracking wise and where he should be scary,” he notes. “On Nightmare 3, I wanted to play him a little older and a little more like a dirty old man.
“I really would like to see Freddy age,” continues the actor. “Or maybe do a story where we regress the Freddy story back to a point where we could finally see Freddy without the makeup.”
He got his wish to a large extent in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. In this continuation of the Dream Warriors storyline, Englund is out of makeup in a sequence in which he plays a school nurse. But at the same time, the role had become second nature to the horror star.
“I don’t do a lot of prepping to play Freddy anymore,” he concedes. “Freddy’s literally like putting on a shoe. I’ll sit down in the makeup chair and just the act of the makeup going on my face will start the juices going.”
Nightmare 4 director Renny Harlin, however, was quick to point out that the audience had grown to see Freddy in a new light.
“We’ve reached a point where the audience sees Freddy as the hero,” Harlin notes. “They come to these movies to hear his funny lines and to see him do those amazing things. Freddy is now seen in a more heroic light and has more screen time. People still fear Freddy Krueger, but at this point, they are also cheering him on.”
Fans continued to cheer Freddy on when, after the completion of Nightmare 4, Englund jumped to the small screen to anchor the anthology television series Freddy’s Nightmares. For the most part, Krueger’s contributions to the show were limited to vignettes that bookended the segments, but Englund is steadfast in saying that the series is doing right by the character.
“Translating the film A Nightmare on Elm Street to television has not gotten away from the true intent of the Freddy Krueger character,” he notes. “There has always been an underlying tone to the Nightmare films that Freddy is waging war on the status quo. To my way of thinking, the TV series is carrying on in that tradition.”
On A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child, Freddy has gone back to his horror roots.
“There are a lot of real primal things going on in this movie,” Englund acknowledges. “We’re getting to see much more of the cruel side of Freddy. I don’t know if this is necessarily going to be a scarier movie, but I do know that we’re going to see Freddy more as a basically cruel and extreme being than we have in quite a long time.”
Englund sees a future for Freddy beyond the expected Nightmare 6.
“We’ve definitely got a good thing going with the Nightmare films,” Robert Englund promises, “and there’s still a lot of places we can go with the Freddy character. I can’t wait to see what the filmmakers come up with next.”